Unexpected Places, How Successful Women Got to Where They Are The story of Ilays Aden, co-founder of Eat with Muslims
If you would have pulled Ilays Aden aside five years ago and told her that in 2019 she would be traveling the country, hosting dinners and discussions about the importance of inclusivity and religious understanding AND would be featured on the Today Show for doing so… as cliché as it may sound, she would not have believed you.
Born in Somalia, Ilays spent her early childhood in London before moving, with her family, to Northern Virginia and then, ultimately, Seattle. Coming here as a refugee, Ilays’ politically-active mom encouraged her to devote her free time to volunteering for others within their community.
Ilays took a pretty standard route in undergrad, studying Economics and African Studies while working at a bank. Her plan was to continue to move up the ladder at that bank after she graduated… until she realized how much more satisfaction she was getting from helping others than she was from her banking job.
Immigration issues were, of course, the biggest concern that her Somali refugee community had. As she looked around, Ilays noticed that there weren’t a lot of lawyers who could help them who actually looked like her, who came from where they all came from and who shared their experiences. That is when she decided to return to the East Coast and go to law school in Washington, D.C., to study immigration and human rights law while also putting herself in the center of America’s political realm.
Ilays returned to Seattle to start her post-law school life in 2016, thinking that Seattle’s famous “liberal bubble” would help protect her from the anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric that had become its own political movement. After returning to the city that she considered to be home, she met her friend and Eat With Muslims co-founder Fathia Absie, who emigrated from Somalia in the late ’80s.
Shortly after Ilays and Fathia became friends, Fathia was walking down a sidewalk in the outskirts of Seattle when a white man walked up to her, mimed putting a gun to her head, pretended to pull the trigger and then shouted about how much he hated Muslims. Fathia immediately called Ilays, saying, “We have to do something to stop this hate.” Within weeks the two of them hosted their first Eat With Muslims dinner.
Eat With Muslims stemmed from Ilays’ and Fathia’s desire to help change the stories that were being told about Muslims, African Americans and Latinos. They wanted to provide a simple platform for people from all backgrounds to break bread together and get to learn new things about one another. As their dinners became more frequent, they realized the need to talk more openly about Islam and religion in general.
“We didn’t realize how bad the misinformation about what it means to be Muslim was until we started asking people, over and over again, ‘What do you know about Muslims and about Islam?’ We realized that it didn’t have as much to do with liberal or progressive, conservative or Republican political lines as we thought,” says Ilays. “The misinformation was everywhere because people from all backgrounds find it uncomfortable to have conversations about religion and about our differences. That’s what we want to change.”
Over the past 2.5 years, Eat With Muslims has hosted more than 60 events, with more than 3,500 attendees. The demographics of the areas that they have worked in are as diverse as America is: ranging from a gathering in Des Moines that was made up of mostly small-town Iowans, to a meal with Uber employees in New York City that centered around how to be inclusive towards Muslim drivers, to a dinner with Jewish, Muslim and Christian filmmakers and political activists in Hollywood. Ilays and Fathia are also regular speakers in classrooms, at events and conferences across the country, and were featured on the Today Show earlier this year. (https://www.today.com/video/meet-2-somali-americans-whose-dinner-party-is-educating-communities-1437473859835)
Starting Eat With Muslims has even strengthened Ilays’ own relationship with her faith and her refugee community. She started choosing to dress in full hijab on a regular basis (something she had never done before) as she began hosting more Eat With Muslims dinners. It was her comfort at those dinners that caused her comfort with the hijab to grow, and it is now her wardrobe of choice full-time, even though it hasn’t always been easy.
“Sometimes people look at you like you’re crazy as you’re walking down the aisles of the grocery store,” says Ilays. “You wonder why and then remember, ‘Oh yeah, maybe it’s my hijab,.”
She adds, “It’s most scary when I’m in new places and traveling, or have to be careful about my surroundings, like crossing the street..”
But for Ilays, the hijab has allowed her to be more modest in dress and helps her honor who she is as a Muslim woman. “Before I started wearing my hijab, a lot of people didn’t realize that I was Muslim. They would ask me, ‘Oh… so you’re like them?’ In a derogatory way. Or they would say, ‘Well you must be one of the good ones.’” As a black woman, she had felt those tensions all her life, but it was those moments of people not understanding the intersectionality of both that led to the work she is doing now.I
“I had become an activist because I wanted to bring visibility to issues that I thought were important and that I was constantly facing. Wearing a hijab became a part of that visibility. But with the way that I live my life, I am also changing the idea that a lot of people have about Muslim women being oppressed. The more people I talk to, the more stereotypes I break. And the more visibility I give to black Muslim women, the better. We have a voice and I want to add to the stories of women of color. We can shine and pay homage to the strong women that came before us. That’s beautiful!”
For more information on Eat with Muslimscheck out their website at https://www.eatwithmuslims.org/
AUTHOR KRISTINA BEVERLIN
Kristina Beverlin is a staff writer for Girls Who Can. She is an activist, environmentalist, researcher, and writer. She has three cats with three eyes between them and is a globally-curious, avid traveler.